Category Archives: Thoughts

Treating thoughts with compassion

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Treating thoughts with compassion

It is perfectly normal, while meditating, for stray thoughts to arise in one’s mind. This is NOT a sign that we’re failing at meditation – I’ve been meditating for 30 years and thoughts pop up almost every time. Whatever you do, don’t give up meditating because your brain continues to function while you’re meditating. Here are some ideas for dealing with thoughts that you might consider.

  1. Don’t fight the thoughts when they arise, or try to stamp them down. Fighting them means you’re focusing on them rather than on what you want your meditation to be about.
  2. Instead, treat those thoughts with compassion. Recognize that they are normal, not signs of bad meditating (as if there were such a thing). And don’t beat yourself up for having them.
  3. Come up with a mental exercise for gently setting the thoughts aside for later. Personally, I imagine the subject of the thought as having been written down on a sheet of paper; I place the paper on top of a neat pile of other thoughts and carefully place a paperweight on top of them. As each new thought arises, I repeat the visualization of neatly placing the paper on top of the pile and replacing the paperweight.
  4. When you’re done meditating, mentally return to those thoughts (that’s why I use the paperweight, so they don’t blow away before I can consider them). I sift through those pages I set aside and ask myself whether they are things that I need to think about more or act upon. If I don’t remember all of them (I never do), it probably means the thought was not important or urgent; it it is either, it’ll come back later, no doubt.
  5. If a particular thought is insistent, perhaps you need to pause your meditation momentarily to consider it more closely. Why is this thought coming up now, and why won’t it stop? Again, treat the thought compassionately, not as an enemy. Your mind may be telling you there’s something important you need to know or deal with. After giving the thought some attention, you may then be able to put it aside until your meditation time is over.
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Mirror, Mirror

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Have you ever tried to look at yourself in the mirror without judgment? I mean, simply observe your reflection without commenting in your mind on what you see? It’s really hard, isn’t it?

The actual reflection is the real you – everything else you think about what you see is unreal. The things that we think when we view the reflection – old, ugly, fat, skinny, pimply, undeserving, bad, monstrous – are the stories we layer upon reality. They’re not real, but we act and live as if they are.

I heard a story recently about a landmark house whose original owners made their sons paint the inside walls as punishment for misbehaving. When the home was restored not long ago, more than 50 layers of paint were found on those walls and had to be peeled away, layer by layer.

One of the goals of meditation and mindfulness is to find the real person inside of us. The real person is the original, unpainted wall – but throughout our lives we have added layer after layer of self-judgment so that the real person is no longer visible. We have convinced ourselves that we are bad, that we do not deserve good things, that we have earned our suffering and do not deserve to be free of it. We have labeled ourselves gluttons, liars, perverts, thieves, cheaters, and many other unpalatable titles. But those are not who we are – they may describe things we have done, but they are not us.

For example, almost everyone lies at one time or another – that does not make one a “liar.” Liar is a label we attach to ourselves because – as astounding as it is to grasp – it is simpler for us to believe that we are incapable of telling the truth than it is to wrestle with the notion that being a natural human being and lying are not mutually exclusive. We are so hard on ourselves, so quick to judge ourselves (far quicker than we are to judge others, and that’s pretty quick), that it is easier to accept the delusion that we are inherently bad than it is for us to accept that we sometimes do things we would prefer not to do. The healthy path is to show remorse and to make amends when we have hurt another person; the path we more often take is the one of self-recrimination, self-loathing, and self-punishment.

Through a practice of meditation and mindfulness, we strip away the labels and judgments that we have laid upon ourselves, slowly but surely, until all that is left is the true person beneath. At the same time we are stripping away those falsehoods, we learn not to add any more layers, concoct any more stories, apply any more labels. We learn to treat ourselves with compassion, to love ourselves – the true selves that are buried beneath dozens of layers of untruths we tell ourselves.

The common translation of the Summary of the Law has Jesus saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if we loved our neighbors the way we really “love” ourselves, we wouldn’t be doing them any favors. We often treat others far better than ourselves, are more willing to show them compassion, to cut them a break, to give them the benefit of the doubt, than we are ourselves.

What many of us really need to do is to learn to love ourselves as we love others. When we learn to do that, then our ability to love others and act compassionately toward them will grow by leaps and bounds.

If you’re interested in hanging with people interested in meditation, mindfulness, and spiritual growth, come check out the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.

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The impulse to label the things we feel and think threatens our ability to meditate in a manner that improves our wellbeing and supports our mindfulness practice. We feel sadness, fear, anger, and other emotions that discomfit us, and we call them “bad” emotions. We have thoughts that trouble us or spark attacks of anxiety, and we call them “bad” thoughts. The normal human flow of thoughts and emotions seems to get in the way of our meditation, making it difficult for us to get into a groove or a flow or to another place, however we characterize that satisfying feeling we crave when meditating.

The solution, in my view, is not to find a way to block those thoughts and emotions. Frankly, for most of us, it’s probably not even possible to shut them down. So what can we do?

At the risk of being accused of trying to perpetrate some kind of reverse psychology mumbo jumbo, I think the answer is to not block them at all. Let them flow. Treat them with compassion and don’t label them as either bad or good thoughts or feelings. They’re just thoughts and feelings — inanimate objects — and are, therefore, incapable of being either. When we cease to label them in this manner, we can pay attention to what they mean, to what our brain is trying to say to us. Many times, they are just random, fleeting, and we can let them go as quickly as they came. Other times, we make a mental note to come back to them later after our meditation, and then we let them go. And occasionally, the thoughts or emotions are worth dwelling upon for a time because they feel urgent or particularly important.

The point is, being present with and open to those thoughts and feelings allows us to treat them with equanimity and get past them. Trying to block them is like placing a dam in a river — the pressure on the dam builds and builds until, finally, the waters (our thoughts and emotions) burst through and overwhelm everyone and everything in its path (us and our meditative practice). Better to employ a sluice that directs the waters but does not attempt to block them entirely.

Like a lot of dharma, on the surface it seems like an oxymoron, but it is truth: As long as we try to resist the thoughts and emotions that arise during our meditation, the more they will undermine us; but when we learn to accept our thoughts and emotions and to coexist with them, our meditation can rise above them.

For some more good thoughts on this subject, check out Joseph Mauricio’s post, “Living Meditation,” on ny.shambala.org. And come spend some time with us at the Dharma Beginner Facebook page or follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.